Coming Home: An Immersion Experience

By Amanda Malik, ’12  |  Photos courtesy of Amanda Malik, '12

The sun glints through the backseat window as I rest my chin in the palm of my hand. The radio is off, and every passenger stares quietly out at this New Jersey city as a volunteer-coordinator-turned-tour-guide narrates the urban landscape around us.

We pass the Tweeter Center, where I saw Britney Spears at my first concert and watched my first boyfriend graduate from high school. I am familiar with these revitalized outskirts of Camden, the fresh fringes of a wilted city. But as we drive further down the same road, we cross into the parts I have never seen, the parts I’m not quite sure I’m ready for.

Noticing a couple of boys kicking a can around the empty driveway of a deserted house, I can’t
help thinking of my own childhood, growing up in the lush suburb of Cherry Hill that is just minutes away physically, but light years socioeconomically. We pass Cathedral Kitchen, a free meal center that I used to send sandwiches to but never actually visited.

When we pull into the driveway at the Romero Center, the sun is fading and the air is still. The mismatched couches and cheery paint that greet us in the living room provide a kind of worn safety, contrasting fiercely with the stern exterior. Across the back wall is a quote from Archbishop Óscar Romero: “You say you love the poor…name them.”

The first day I am sent to a men’s homeless shelter. The palms of my hands are damp as I look around, unsure of where to go or who to talk to. When I finally pick a seat, only one guy looks up and I gratefully introduce myself despite the bitter scowl on his face. As I force him into conversation, others slowly join in. Before long, I’ve incited a debate about where to get the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia. I listen eagerly to the opinions of 15 different men, one who includes clackety-clack sound effects of knives chopping steak, and all who seem to have difficulty agreeing about anything.

Back at the Romero Center, planned reflection allows me time to think about the quote on the
wall. While participating in a similar immersion trip the year before, though I swung hammers and chopped wood with gusto, I had not met any of the people I supposedly served. This time, I am determined to leave Camden with names of the people I have met.

At St. Francis AIDS House during lunch, Vince, a resident, talks so much that his plate’s still filled with food long after the rest of us have finished. He spends most of his time cracking jokes and laughing at himself, but then becomes very solemn. “It ain’t fun when you got AIDS. People look at you different, they don’t want to associate themselves with you anymore.” When we leave, he kisses us each on the cheek.

At New Visions, a homeless day shelter right down the street, it is not until the end of the day that I befriend Brian, who has been sitting with his back against the wall for most of the day. I am attempting to survey some uncooperative fellows when he calls me over.

“Too many people dyin’ out on the streets, all because of drugs. I know it’s gonna kill me,
never know when, but I just can’t stop.” He goes on to tell me about his family, his 6’3” daughter who plays basketball at Tennessee, his estranged wife who divorced him because of his cocaine habit, and his subsequent spiral into addiction. Putting Brian’s face to the problem makes drug addiction seem less crazy than I previously thought it was.

Jamaica is the fearless leader of Tent City, a triangle-shaped lot dotted with blue and gray tarps just next to a highway ramp. He leads us through the camp to the community tent near the back, where weekly meetings are held and the written rules are nailed to a tree. “No lyin’, cause then there ain’t no trust. And no bringing’ your tricks around here, ’cause this is our home, and we ain’t gonna stand for that.”

He tells us how important rules are in a community, how everything is bound to fall apart without them. “We got intelligent people here, skilled people here. We’re just down on our luck. The only thing we have now, we have our pride. And we stick with our pride. Our pride keeps us going.”

At the end of the week, as we head out of Camden, I wonder why it took me until college, until I went away from home, to be able to take a closer look at the place where I grew up. I always knew Cherry Hill was full of wonderful people, but I was a bit more skeptical about the reportedly drug-addicted residents of Camden. Yet now I knew the names, faces, and stories of my hurting neighbors. I knew about Vince’s worsening AIDS, Brian’s downhill struggle with cocaine, and Jamaica’s desperate attempt to build a community in a place where so many had lost hope. More than anything, I felt their plea for presence, their need for engaging in conversation and sharing their stories with someone who would listen and remember their names.

Sending sandwiches to ease my conscience was not what they had required all those years; it was a friend.

A biology/writing interdisciplinary major, Amanda Malik, ’12, wrote this essay for the Spring 2011 issue of Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education after a Spring Break Outreach trip coordinated by Loyola’s Center for Community Service and Justice.

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